Obviously, the folk genre is so diverse and long-lived that it would be impossible to sum up the best of the genre in just nine songs – but we’ve tried cover a varied selection. In this section we’ve got an extremely old song and then a few slightly more modern artists. Each of these songs however has the travelling, old-timey and dare we say folksy melancholy to keep them at the top of the genre as some of the greatest folk music tracks of all time.
Down in the River to Pray (composer unknown)
This historical Christian folk hymn is one of the most iconic of its kind. Evidence suggests that it was already well known by 1867, when it was included in the abolitionist collection of African-American music, Slave Songs of The United States. Some researchers even think that version may have been adapted from an older Native American chant, although that theory is difficult to prove. A hauntingly beautiful choral arrangement, Down in the River to Pray may also have been a coded message of hope to slaves. During their escape, they would ‘wear a starry crown’ as they navigate by starlight and once they reach the river the chasing dogs would lose their scent – thus ‘down in the river’ not ‘by’. It has been recorded many times over the years, but most notable of the recent versions was the one sung by Alison Krauss for the soundtrack of the highly-rated 2000 Cohen Brothers movie O’ Brother Where Art Thou.
Pancho & Lefty by Townes Van Zandt
Considered Townes Van Zandt’s most iconic song, Pancho & Lefty is a traditional story-telling folk-country ballad that tells the tale of a pair of Mexican bandits called Pancho and Lefty. Many have suggested the song may have been about the actual historical figure Pancho Villa, but Van Zandt stated in an interview he didn’t have anyone real in mind when writing the song. After it released in 1972 Pancho & Lefty was a successful album track. However, it wasn’t until Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson recorded their own version in 1983 that it became a hit single – reaching number one in the country charts of February that year. Van Zandt’s original version often appears on top 100 lists of country music tracks, including Rolling Stone’s list in 2017.
Heart of Gold by Neil Young
One of the most important figures in the development of folk rock, this track was also first recorded in 1972 and was rated by critics as one of the best songs of that year – as well as reaching the Billboard Number #1 spot. It was partly written as a sit-down song for during his sets, because Neil had back problems at the time and couldn’t keep up the constant energy needed for a proper electric performance. Funnily enough, despite being his biggest solo hit Neil wasn’t overly fond of Heart of Gold, saying that “[Heart of Gold] put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore.” Still we’re glad he went there, because we got this heartfelt emotional and catchy folk-rock anthem from it.